DALLAS — Eddy Curry was all smiles Monday after the Dallas Mavericks mercifully put a wrap on their final preseason practice before Tuesday’s opener against Dwight Howard and the Los Angeles Lakers.
And why shouldn’t the slimmed-down Curry be smiling? After playing just 24 games over the last four seasons — that’s 24 total games, not an average per season — suddenly Curry will almost assuredly start at center opposite Howard at Staples Center just days after being waived by the Spurs and then signed by the desperate, injury depleted Mavs.
“That’s awesome, man,” Curry said of facing Howard in his L.A. debut. “Couldn’t ask for a better matchup, I think, just to really test me and see where I am.”
Curry’s personal good fortune, however, underscores just how miserably things have gone for Dallas this preseason. An adjustment period was coming anyway with a radically different roster from the one that claimed the franchise’s only NBA championship just 16 months ago, and even from the semi-dismantled one that feebly attempted to defend the title.
Yet, no one could have predicted that when the Mavs take the floor Tuesday night, forward Shawn Marion would be the lone starter from either of those two teams. It’s been one mess of a preseason, with injury and atypical turmoil producing one gut punch after another.
The big blow was Dirk Nowitzki’s bothersome right knee requiring arthroscopic surgery that will sideline him for at least another two to four weeks. Chris Kaman, the 7-foot and chronically injured center the Mavs crossed their fingers would start in the opener, can’t stay healthy. He wrenched his back during the very first practice and is now into his second week of a calf stain. The baffling Delonte West, the Mavs’ best option at backup point guard, was waived Monday after twice being suspended for conduct detrimental to the team.
|Mavs offensive efficiency since drafting Nowitzki|
OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
So the veteran Marion is left to tackle Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol and Howard with a likely starting cast that includes four newcomers: Darren Collison, O.J. Mayo, rookie Jae Crowder and Curry, with Elton Brand coming off the bench.
“Welcome to the NBA,” Marion said laughing when asked about the club’s crazy preseason. “It’s a day in the NBA life, that’s what it is. I’ve seen a lot first-hand. Sometimes it’s sad to see, but it’s called a business.”
One thing the Mavs have seen very little of over their decade-plus run of success is locker-room scuffling. West was pinned as the root cause of post-game flare-ups during the preseason, and the club believes his eviction will return tranquility to what has mostly been a smooth, low-key environment headed by a core group of accomplished veterans.
“I have three guys for you:” the rookie Crowder said. “Elton Brand, Shawn Marion and Vince Carter, in that order. Those guys have really held this team together.”
The fact is that the veteran dynamic has dramatically changed. The Mavs are in transition mode as owner Mark Cuban transitions from being a risk-taking, luxury-tax payer to focusing on cap space and striking in free agency. The summer’s failed pursuit of Deron Williams created a second consecutive season of one-year rental players and a locker room that’s as unidentifiable as any in Cuban’s previous dozen seasons as owner.
“It’s still cohesive,” Marion said of the locker room. “Even with all the little minor stuff that everybody’s talking about; listen, nobody’s prefect, but we got some great guys here and we like each other and that’s all that matters.”
The responsibility to bring the team together falls on the man with the most stability — head coach Rick Carlisle, who enters his fifth season after signing a four-year deal shortly after the Mavs were bounced out of the first round in a sweep by the Oklahoma City Thunder.
The early season is going to require extreme patience. Without Nowitzki and Kaman, scoring obviously becomes much trickier — Dallas finished the preseason in the bottom 10 in scoring — and the Mavs become extraordinarily thin up front, a major hindrance against the giant Lakers and the Utah Jazz, the following night’s opponent in Salt Lake City.
“You really couldn’t tell,” Curry said of any lingering chaos from the last three weeks. “Of course with Dirk being out everybody’s on edge and we know we have to give a little more — a lot more actually — but other than that everybody’s excited and looking forward to a good opening night.”
And so through unpredictable circumstance, a desperate player finds a desperate team and both hope for the best. Certainly no one foresaw an opening night in which Curry would jump center for the Mavs and West would be out of a job.
At least until Nowitzki returns, hoping for the best is about the best anyone in Dallas can do.